How do the sensory aspects of an environment impact autistic people’s experiences of that space?
How can we educate people about sensory processing differences and inspire them to make public places more enabling for autistic people?
These are the questions that our project Sensory Street aims to answer. In 2021 we ran a series of online focus groups and asked people to answer a range of questions on our social media pages. We also worked with staff at a specialist school to learn more about how sensory processing difficulties affects their autistic children’s experiences of public spaces such as supermarkets and restaurants.
Our research paper “It is a big spider web of things: Sensory Experiences of Autistic Adults in Public Spaces” is now published in Autism in Adulthood.
Findings from our Focus Groups
Over 2021 we ran seven online focus groups to explore what autistic people think about the sensory elements of public spaces. In these groups we wanted to learn more about the sensory aspects of of places such as supermarkets and what people thought made certain locations more or less enabling than others.
In the first set of focus groups we focused on learning about which locations people find easier or more challenging. Then in the second set of focus groups we asked people to explore the most commonly identified locations in more detail. After the focus had finished, we discussed the results we found with a feedback group of autistic people who helped us to refine the themes and ideas we found.
We have split our results into two sections, which explore both the locations that people find more challenging as well as what themes or principles seem to make certain spaces easier or harder than others. Each of these sections have a set of questions for businesses or organisations to help you start to think about adaptations that could support autistic people in different locations.
We used a process called reflexive thematic analysis to analyse what people told us in our focus groups. We identified 6 themes and 15 subthemes or principles that could make different locations easier or more difficult to visit. People also identified that these can often overlap with one another. Each of our different themes contains questions for business owners/organisations to help you think about ways you could make a spaces more enabling. Learn more on our page about the principles of sensory environments.
We used an approach called content analysis to identify locations people regularly identify as being more enabling or disabling than others. Our focus groups identified a range of different locations. The five most common disabling locations were supermakets, eateries (restaurants and cafés), high streets and town/city centres, public transport, and healthcare settings (e.g. GP surgeries and hospitals). Learn more about these spaces on our page about the top disabling locations.
Findings from Social Media Posts
On our social media channels (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram), we asked people a range of questions about which locations they find more or less enabling due to the sensory environment and why. We also asked people to tell us more about specific locations that people have reported can be more challenging such as supermarkets and healthcare settings.
We wanted to learn whether the themes we identified in the focus groups were similar or different to what people reported in replies to our social media posts. We used a process called reflexive thematic analysis to review the data. We found that while not every subtheme was represented in detail, people discussed each of the different themes such as the lack of space in many public places and the challenges caused by a location’s unpredictability. Learn more at our page comparing each of the themes identified in the focus groups.
We used content analysis to explore which locations people commonly identified as being either accessible or more challenging. We wanted to find out which locations people reported as easier or more challenging and investigate whether these were the same locations we found in our focus groups. Learn more on our page comparing those identified in the social media posts and in our focus groups.
On our social media posts, people identified that there are a range of areas that they feel business owners and neurotypical people misunderstand about autism and sensory processing. These include the variability of sensory processing difficulties and the negative impacts that more difficult sensory environments can have on an individual. Learn more on our page on what autistic people want neurotypical people and businesses to learn about sensory processing difficulties in public spaces.
Ethics Approval Reference: R74960/RE001
In July two members of our project team (Keren and Emily) presented about our work in the ‘Sensory Experiences and Processing’ session at the Autistica Research Festival 2022. They also were both involved in a Q&A session after the presentation.
You can watch the session below: